Servant leadership is a philosophy where a leader is a servant first. Servant leaders aspire to serve their team and the organization first ahead of personal objectives. It is a selfless leadership style where a leader possesses a natural feeling to serve for the greater good.
Robert K. Greenleaf first discussed the philosophy in an essay called “The Servant as Leader,” which was first published in 1970. Greenleaf indicated that servant leaders in organizations provide support to their employees, allowing them to learn and grow through inclusive leadership, which employs their expertise and strategies to the fore.
Servant leadership leads employees to put an optimal effort in achieving the objectives of the organization as they feel included and valued. It’s been gaining momentum since its establishment, with several organizations already adopting it, notably Starbucks, FedEx, Marriot International, and The Container Store.
Understanding Servant Leadership
To fully understand servant leadership, we borrow the words of Larry Spears, the Executive Director of Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership who, in his description of servant leadership, highlighted the following four attributes as central to the servant leadership framework.
1. Service to others
Servant leadership is centered on the fundamental desire to be of service to others. Leaders put away their self-serving actions to assume servanthood to the team and the organization.
The philosophy is cemented by encouraging team members to perform at their best. In their interactions with team members, servant leaders emphasize and assume the role of a servant. Success is therefore inevitable as the leader serves the team by recognizing and encouraging the team’s abilities to achieve organizational goals.
2. Integrated work ethic
An integrated work ethic attribute relates to the relationship that exists between individuals, organizations, and society at large. It emphasizes that individuals should be encouraged to remain steadfast to their character and personality in both their personal and professional activities.
Greenleaf believed such an assertion would ultimately benefit the organization in the long term through increased performance by allowing employees to express themselves freely and recognizing their unique individual traits and abilities.
3. Instilling a sense of community
Servant leadership strives to build a sense of community in employees as a way to achieve success in meeting organizational objectives. A community is a collection of individuals with common social, economic, and political interests living in one area or society.
Greenleaf emphasized that servant leaders provide human services by instilling a sense of community in their employees. He theorized that servant leaders’ actions and output result from the expression of this sense of community.
4. Power-sharing in decision making
By sharing the decision-making power vested in them, servant leaders cultivate servant leadership in others. The theory posits that the best way to achieve organizational success is to delegate power rather than hoard it. Power-sharing is achieved through encouraging employee abilities and participation and promoting an empowering environment in the organization. The actions create a well-motivated workforce that drives employees to work towards achieving organizational objectives.
Hence, the servant leadership philosophy appears like an inverted pyramid where servant leaders are at the bottom and employees and other stakeholders are staked at the top. It is the opposite of the hierarchical structure of traditional leadership style.
Servant Leadership vs. Traditional Leadership
Servant leadership and traditional leadership utilize different techniques and approaches to leadership and produce different results. Below are some of the major differences between the two types of leadership philosophies.
Greenleaf also identified ten attributes of servant leadership, which are summarized below:
Attributes of Servant Leadership
Servant leaders pay attention to issues affecting their employees through active listening. It improves communication and understanding.
A deeper understanding of team members enables servant-leaders to empathize with their employees.
The healing attribute pertains to the ability of servant leaders to create an environment that fosters a healthy work-life balance, which allows employees to heal from previous undesirable personal and professional experiences. Healing provides wholeness in each team member.
To emphasize efficiency, servant leaders recognize and become aware of their strengths and shortcomings. The leaders’ self-awareness enables them to determine how they best fit in the organization and avoid missing leadership opportunities.
Servant leaders use influence and persistent persuasion techniques to achieve group consensus and drive team members towards the achievement of organizational objectives. It is in contrast to traditional leadership, which motivates team members through position power and authority.
Servant leaders conceptualize solutions to problems in their team even before they are realized. Being on top of the hierarchy by virtue of the authority vested in them and at the bottom providing servant leadership, servant leaders can see the bigger picture more clearly.
To improve foresight, servant leaders and team members use their previous knowledge, experiences, and trend analysis to enhance decision-making based on events yet to happen.
The servant leaders’ oversight stretches from team members to the organization as a whole and how it relates to society at large. The stewardship attribute also entails that servant leaders take responsibility for team decisions and performances.
9. Commitment to the growth of people
Commitment entails servant leaders showing a genuine need to allocate time and resources to assist in the personal and professional growth of team members. Practically, this is achieved by introducing development programs and organizational training.
10. Building community
Servant leaders strive to foster relationships between team members which improves trust, productivity, and a sense of community.
Benefits of Servant Leadership
1. Stronger teams
By serving the team, servant leaders acquire the respect of their teammates which increases collaboration, leads to productive behavior, instills harmony, and builds stronger teams.
2. Conducive working environment
Working alongside the leader in an organization implants a positive working environment where interactions are more constructive and there is less competition to impress the leader through selfish political squabbles.
3. Alignment of personal and professional goals
The support and encouragement of personal and professional development from a servant leader allow employees to align their personal and professional objectives to organizational goals.
The alignment improves employee engagement, commitment, and loyalty to the organization ultimately increasing productivity and profit.
4. Improved organizational agility
Teams that receive support from their leaders are more flexible in the face of a changing environment delivering an agile organization.
Professional development supported by leaders augments employee learning and development process where strengths are enhanced and weaknesses are addressed.
5. Leadership training
By working alongside their servant leaders, team members learn to take responsibility and ownership accelerating their leadership capabilities.
6. Employee motivation
Servant leadership improves employee motivation, which inspires the courage to be more creative and innovative.
7. People-oriented corporate culture
The philosophy strengthens and develops a people-oriented corporate culture.
8. Decreases employee turnover
Empowered employees will be encouraged to stay in a company and continue working towards achieving the organization’s objectives.
Criticisms of Servant Leadership
Some critics, notably Sendiaya and Sarros, criticized the servant leadership theory arguing that Jesus Christ is the founder of servant leadership, not Robert K. Greenleaf. The concept is cemented by evidence from Christian Bible Gospel authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Feminist scholars argue that servant leadership is based on the patriarchal view of leadership and that leadership, in general, is associated with masculinity.
Some scholars debate the applicability and practicality of the servant leadership theory in the real world in terms of the compatibility of its goals of uplifting team members and the organization ahead of individual needs to the contemporary ideals of individual performance.
Other researchers view servant leadership as unrealistic through its obliviousness to accountability, the aggression of employees in the workplace, and different individual competence levels.
Limitations of Servant Leadership
The theory does not clearly define the role of morality in servant leadership.
Servant leaders may not possess an adequate understanding of service and the business as a whole.
Servant leaders may lack the motivation to serve, rendering the theory impractical.
Servant leadership relies on the moral framework of its team.
The servant leadership concept can be time-consuming for leaders, requiring extra effort, which is hard work.
The authenticity needed for servant leadership is daunting and difficult to achieve.
Perception risk – Servant leaders may be perceived as weak, leading to diminishing formal authority.
Lack of confidence – Employees are expected to make decisions and own them, a scenario that can happen when an employee finds it difficult to see the bigger picture and lacks the confidence to make decisions that drive the business forward.
Consultative decision making can lead to slower decision making.
Thank you for reading CFI’s guide to Servant Leadership. To keep learning and developing your knowledge base, please explore the additional relevant resources below: